Tuesday 20 February 2018

David Coleman: Do I need to start disciplining my whiney son more?

Picture posed. Thinkstock Images
Picture posed. Thinkstock Images

I have a two-and-a-half-year-old son and he is very whiney all the time. Whenever you say anything to him or give out to him he starts crying. He was born premature, as was his older brother.

My other son is aged five and started school this September. Just today my sister was visiting us with her one-year-old son who has just started walking.

We were sitting watching them on the floor when my son pulled his cousin's hair. I didn't chastise him for it and my sister was annoyed that I didn't give out to him.

I know I probably should have but for a quiet life, and not to have him crying when I have visitors, I said nothing. My sister started giving out to me and said I should have a naughty step.

I am a stay-at-home mum and find it difficult to know how to manage him. My husband is self-employed and works long hours and I love the boys going to bed early so I can relax.

When my youngest is on his own with me he is quite good. I seem to never win with my sister; she thinks she is the perfect mum and that her precious son will never do things that my son does. I love my two sons so much as I thought they would never make it after their traumatic arrivals into this world. I would love to hear from you as to what I should do.

David replies:

You sound a little bit conflicted in how you feel about your boys. No more than any parent, I am sure you love your sons to bits but you also find them hard going. It can be tempting, too, to be a bit indulgent of them given their "traumatic arrivals into this world".

Perhaps because you feel they had it tough from the start you may not be investing as much energy in disciplining them as you might need to. By discipline, I don't mean punishment, but I do mean firm and unambiguous guidance from parents about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Children need us to fully engage with them through the day, especially when they are so comparatively young. As they get older they can be expected to be more responsible for their own behaviour, but at age two we must still show them what they can and can't do.

Anyone who reads my articles regularly, or listens to me on the Tubridy radio show, will know that I am firmly opposed to the naughty step. I believe it can be rejecting for children to be sent away to a bold chair or naughty step.

I also believe that by sending a child to a bold or naughty step you give them a very unfortunate message that they are naughty.

Why should they bother trying to be good if their parents believe that they are bold? If you use a naughty step, over time your child could come to believe that they are naughty and so they will be less inclined to act positively because they will, instead, act according to their 'naughty' reputation.

My approach is to swiftly and decisively tell them that certain behaviours are not acceptable. Then I stop the child from doing the behaviour and if needs be I remove them from the situation where they can repeat the behaviour.

Using the example of hair-pulling that you give, a typical response might be to say, firmly and sharply, to your son, "you may not pull hair!" and then pick him up and lift him away from his cousin. You don't have to send your son off, just move him out of reach of his cousin.

Perhaps once his cousin is comforted you can then tell him: "When you can play without hurting your cousin then I will let you back on the floor to play with him." The point of intervening is to stop your son, not to punish him. If you regularly stop him from certain behaviours he will learn that he is not allowed to do them.

If your son bursts into tears or whinges or whines at this point, then so be it. There is no harm done to him and he needs to learn that you won't let him hurt others.

He may be upset because you are cross with him, he may be upset that you won't let him play with his cousin, he may be upset because his cousin now has free reign with the toys on the floor.

Whatever the cause of his upset, it is not that important because the key thing he will realise is that you mean business and you won't let him hurt other children.

It is never that helpful for parents to avoid taking the necessary action just for an easy life. Inevitably, what seems to be an easy way out at one point (ignoring your son's behaviour) becomes more of a problem later (when your son goes around hitting or hurting indiscriminately because nobody ever stopped him).

It is up to you to decide if you need to get your house in order, so to speak, and not up to your sister to lecture you (although I imagine she was upset on behalf of her son and wanted to see some kind of justice).

In your situation, though, you can't afford to ignore behaviour where your son hurts someone else. He needs to know that he is not the boss, you are.

With toddlers and pre-schoolers we demonstrate that we are in charge by showing them what behaviour is okay and what behaviour is not okay. Hitting, hair-pulling, biting, pinching or scratching (which are very common toddler behaviours) are not necessarily maliciously intended, but they are certainly not okay.

I believe that you must respond, therefore, to curb your son's behaviour so that he knows that playing nicely with his cousin is a good thing, but hurting his cousin is simply not allowed.

Until you start responding to him, you, in fact, give him an implicit message that hurting is allowed.

I don't think you have much of a choice but to respond to him. You are investing lots of energy in loving him, but love isn't all that children need; you need to add discipline to your list of parenting tasks.

Have you got a problem for David? Email him at dcoleman@independent.ie

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence.

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